Epiphany 4A Sermon (Lent 2015)

1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 5:1-18;
Isaiah 11

A NEW IDENTITY

We are going off the lectionary, the assigned scripture readings, for this season in Lent. We are following a different lectionary of sorts, one suggested in Brian McLaren‘s latest book We Make the Road by Walking. It’s basically fifty two plus sermons that follow a year-long telling of the Christian story like the lectionary we ordinarily use. But for Lent he suggests reading through the entire Sermon on the Mount — which we will do over the next five weeks.

I like this idea for a couple reasons. One is that Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount falls in an awkward place in our assigned lectionary, so that we almost never read much of it. This is the biggest mistake, in my opinion, of the lectionary, because the Sermon on the Mount is among the most important teaching of Jesus. And so my second reason for liking this switch involves Lent originally being a time of instruction for the adults being instructed for their baptism at the Easter Vigil. If we were to choose a manual of instruction for being a follower of Jesus, we can do no worse than the Sermon on the Mount.

So here we go on a five week journey. McLaren suggests the theme in the first 18 verses of “A New Identity.” I think his main point can be summed up in these couple of sentences:

The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others — us — in the spotlight when he says, “You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.” Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are. (1)

I think McLaren is right about this, but I think it also goes a bit deeper in this way: Jesus came to give us a new identity by introducing us to a new identity of God our Creator, our heavenly parent. We come to have new identities because we come to see a new identity in the God who lovingly made us.

As a background story to keep in mind, I suggest one of the pre-eminently Christian sagas of our time, the Harry Potter series. As the first of the seven books begins, (2) Harry is about to turn eleven years-old, living with his aunt and uncle, who treat him outrageously like an outsider to their home, favoring their own son Dudley. And all that Harry knows about his parents are that they died senselessly in a car crash, leaving him orphaned. He lives with an orphan identity in a home where he is not really wanted, constantly feeling as an outsider.

On the night that Harry turns eleven, that all changes. The half-giant Hagrid shows up to reveal to Harry that he is a wizard, slated to go to wizarding school in the fall. But even more shockingly he finds out that his parents did not die senselessly in a car crash. They died trying to save him from the great evil wizard Voldemort, who Harry somehow did in, vanquishing his dark powers. More on how that happened in a few moments. But, for now, keeping in mind that story image of having your entire identity shift as you find out something new and different about your parents’ identity.

I think that this is what Jesus is doing for us: giving us a new identity by revealing to us nothing less than a new identity of the God who made us, our heavenly parent. The assumption in human communities up to that time was the opposite of what Jesus gives us in the Beatitudes. All human beings, including the Jews, thought they knew who God was: God is the powerful being who blesses those who are powerful in their earthly lives, and curses those who are not powerful. So for Jesus to begin his teaching by announcing the opposite — namely, God’s blessings on those who aren’t powerful — that first and foremost questioned the very identity of God as someone on the side of the powerful.

McLaren sums things up well. God was assumed to be on the side of those who:

Do everything they can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden themselves against all feelings of loss.
Measure success by how much of the time they are thinking only of themselves and their own happiness.
Are independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike them, and guard their image so they’ll always be popular. (3)

It’s a great description, really, of Harry Potter’s aunt, uncle, and cousin. It was a great example in Jesus’ time of the Roman citizens who held the power. The Jews, meanwhile, had the identity of the orphan outsider to power. So how would they hear Jesus’ announcement of God’s blessings to the outsiders? That God was truly a God who blesses the left-outs rather than the powerful-ins, the have-nots rather than the haves?

But here is the tricky part. Is the new identity of God simply that of truly being on a different side, the side of the outsiders? Is it simply the identity of a God who’s on our side if we are among the left-out, the have-not? Is that the new identity of God which changes our identity?

We will answer that question next week, as we get into the next huge surprises that Jesus shocks us with. For today, let’s end with the new identity that marks each of us. At the close of the first Harry Potter book, Harry finally gets to talk with his wise teacher Dumbledore. He is wondering about the truth of his identity, which is marked by a scar on his forehead. It’s a lightning shaped scar that is the mark of the same curse that killed his parents, who died for him, while he miraculously survived. Harry asks about this truth on which his identity depends, invoking the following conversation:

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. However, I shall answer your questions unless I have a very good reason not to, in which case I beg you’ll forgive me. I shall not, of course, lie.”

“Well . . . Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because she tried to stop him from killing me. But why would he want to kill me in the first place?”

Dumbledore sighed very deeply this time.

“Alas, the first thing you ask me, I cannot tell you. Not today. Not now. You will know, one day . . . put it from your mind for now, Harry. When you are older . . . I know you hate to hear this . . . when you are ready, you will know.”

And Harry knew it would be no good to argue.

“But why couldn’t [Voldemort kill] me?”

“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” (4)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are marked in our baptisms with the cross of Christ on our foreheads which changes our identities forever, for we are marked by the love of God through Jesus’ death for us. Too have been loved so deeply will give us protection, power forever.

How does this love give us a new identity? More next week.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 22, 2015

1. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 129.

2. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [Scholastic Press, 1998].

3. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 128.

4. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [Scholastic Press, 1998], pages 298-99.

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